Personal ethics and aesthetics

Seals - identity and expression

In this preface to a scroll of SHEN Zhou's (沈周 1427-1509) garden scenes, a later connoisseur has brought together a group of calligraphic elements to form an appropriate introduction.

The writing is in archaic seal script (篆書) a style consolidated during the period of China's unification under QIN Shihuang (秦始皇 247-210 BC), the emperor of the Terracotta Army in Xian. For later literati, it was style imbued with romantic qualities, rather as Europeans looked to Classical Greek art. Here it is used by a modern writer, WANG Tie (王褆 1878-1960), to frame Shen Zhou and encourage our interpretation of him as an artist well-tuned to core literati concerns. Inasmuch as this script is 'abrupt' or elegantly clumsy, it also points to Shen Zhou's own studied amateurism.

Wang's preface is essentially an elaborate title that declares the veracity and excellence of the six garden scenes that follow. It finishes with a brief vertical inscription ostensibly for date and signature. While this is in a more typical style such as would be used for contemporary writing, it is slightly distorted, leaning towards seal script in manner.

Finally, there are three seals of Wang Tie. On the right, at the head of the preface, there is a seal with Wang's nom de plume. Its delicately handled seal script is spaced in such a way as to echo the larger ink text. Subtle care is taken in the micro-composition, with the characters gently contacting the bounding oval line at 'four corners.' At the end of the preface, two seals accompany the signature. The dense and complex upper one declares this to be a work of Wang Tie's maturity (after the age of 60), while the lower one presents itself as 'Wang Tie's private seal.' The internal composition of each seal is full - if eccentric - suggesting a conscious amateurism. They are both applied askance or purposely casual, following the line of the adjacent calligraphy.



  WANG Tie 王褆 (1878-1960)
Frontispiece to scroll of SHEN Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509)
Private collection